by Tamara Scully
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recently met and voted upon a proposal — ultimately defeated by an 8 to 7 vote — that would have allowed hydroponic or container growing systems that had no more than 20 percent of their nitrogen requirements supplied via liquid feeding, as well as no more than 50 percent of the crop’s nitrogen added after planting, to be certified organic. Growing systems outside of these parameters would not be eligible for organic certification. While that sounds complex, what it all boils down to is soil.
The passing of the NOSB proposal would have meant that plants had to be rooted into a compost or soil-based medium, one capable of providing the needed nutrients for crop growth, in order to be eligible for the USDA’s Certified Organic label. In hydroponic systems plants may or may not be rooted into a medium such as coir, peat moss, perlite or other inert ingredients to support the root system — not provide it with nutrients.
According to NOSB regulations, two-thirds of the 15-member board must approve a proposal in order for it to be presented to the USDA as a recommendation. Because the proposal placing restrictions on the parameters of an organic growing system was not approved, the movement to “keep soil in organics” was defeated.
The organic farming movement was built on the premise of healthy soil systems promoting healthy crops. In 2010, the initial NOSB proposal regarding hydroponic certification affirmed that organic production was, indeed, a soil-based system. However, the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations were deemed too unclear, and the NOSB was asked to reexamine the issue, and solicit public comment.
The recently defeated proposal was a compromise proposal presented by the NOSB Crops Subcommittee. A detailed report on the Crops Subcommittee process and the development of the proposal is available at: www.ams.usda.gov .
According to the Subcommittee report, “Those against allowing hydroponics to carry the organic label in the marketplace discussed the foundational principles of organic as originating with care and improvement of the soil and the overall ecosystem. Longer-term improvements such as the use of nitrogen-fixing crops, cover crops for improved organic matter, and an overall regenerative system that protects water and wildlife as well as supporting biodiversity, were also noted in numerous comments.”
On the other hand, the Crops Subcommittee found that “those in favor of allowing hydroponics to carry the organic label in the marketplace discussed the efficient use of water and nutrients as important considerations. They also stated that there were fewer disease and pest problems in their controlled-environment production systems, leading to lower use of organically approved pesticides. Soil and water were considered by them to be equally acceptable as a medium to deliver nutrients to plant roots.”
Organic farmer Francis Thicke, whose five-year term on the NOSB finished after the recent meeting, served as Chair of the NOSB’s Crops Subcommittee. After the closing of the public comment period regarding the organic certification of hydroponic production, he shared much of the process and rational behind the defeated proposal, as well as his own perspective on the topic, with participants in the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance via the O-Dairy ListServe. The O-Dairy ListServe is a vibrant, respectful forum where those involved in organic production can share questions, experiences and knowledge, and discuss issues pertinent to organic farming.
“We took a compromise position that would allow container production to be certified organic if a major portion of the crops’ nutrition came from soil or compost,” Thicke posted, pointing out that “the 2010 NOSB recommendation also recommended that compost be considered equivalent to soil in container production.”
Thicke himself would have preferred to follow organic standards in the European Union, which do not allow hydroponic production to be certified. However, he and other members of the NOSB realized that such stringent a proposal would not be approved, and were hopeful that the compromise proposal setting parameters on the amount of nutrition not coming from the soil medium itself would be approved.
“It may be helpful to know that seven members of the NOSB were in favor of prohibiting hydroponic and container production from being certified organic, as is the standard in the EU,” Thicke wrote. “The remaining eight members were in favor of allowing hydroponic production to be certified organic — some preferred that it be labeled “hydroponic organic” and some thought hydroponics should be labeled organic without any indication on the label that it was hydroponic.”
The defeat has sent repercussions throughout the organic farming community. The influence of large corporations and special interest trade groups is a cause for concern for many in the organic farming community. In response, the Rodale Institute recently sponsored the development of a new, grassroots policy association meant to represent all organic farmers, not only corporate interests or mega-sized farms: the Organic Farmers Association. The group supported the NOSB Crops Subcommittee proposal.
During his closing comments at the NOSB meeting, which took place Oct. 31-Nov. 2 in Jacksonville, FL, Thicke shared his thoughts on today’s organic production standards.
“The second thing I learned, over time, is that industry has an outsized and growing influence on USDA — and on the NOSB — compared to the influence of organic farmers, who started this organic farming movement. The USDA is increasingly exerting control over the NOSB, and big business is tightening its grip on the USDA and Congress.”
Thicke now supports an add-on organic certification that would work in conjunction with USDA’s organic certification process, but would additionally include the values of the original organic food movement.
“I support the creation of a label, such as the proposed Regenerative Organic Certification, that will ensure organic integrity; for example, that animals have real access to the outdoors to be able to express their natural behaviors, and that food is grown in soil,” Thicke said. “My hopes are that this add-on certification can be seamlessly integrated with the NOP certification, so that a single farm organic system plan and inspection can serve to verify both NOP and the higher level organic certification, by certifiers that are accredited by both certification systems.”